A Song That Changed My Life: The Entertainer by Marvin Hamlisch

The Stingredfordnewman.jpg

“The Entertainer” was written by Scott Joplin in 1902. It enjoyed modest success as a two-step dance number in its day. It probably would have remained an obscure slice of musical history, but thanks to the movie The Sting, set in 1936, released in 1973, there was a resurgence in ragtime music, and “The Entertainer” got a lot of AM radio play. It was weird to hear something like “Bennie And The Jets” by Elton John followed by “The Lord’s Prayer” by Sister Janet Mead followed by “The Entertainer” by Marvin Hamlisch on WLS. I had no idea how good things were.

Is it coincidence that two songs that influenced and changed my life revolve around George Roy Hill, Paul Newman and Robert Redford? Was this just some sort of success formula that works, and I was a sucker for it? If that is the case, why wasn’t there a third one? This just in: it was supposed to be Lethal Weapon. [Fact Check: It was indeed A Walk In The Woods.]

In 1974, The Sting went on to win Academy Awards for best movie, best director, best original screenplay, and best music for a film, as well as three other boring awards. Before the days of the BetaMax, or the VHS, or the cable TV, or the DVD player, or the internet, or the Roku, or the streaming services, or the dish, or the TiVo, there were theaters. When a movie won an Oscar, the studios would re-release the movie into as many theaters as possible. It worked and the movie would rack up more box office sales. This was the old school version of video rentals, but you had to earn it by winning an Academy Award.

Funny story, true. In order to see The Sting, I made a deal with my parents. If I read the novel of the screenplay adaptation, they would take me to see the movie. Let me tell you, even as an eleven year old, I knew this was poorly written in 154 pages. If I knew the expression, ‘phoned in’ back in those days, that’s what I would’ve called it. Nice paycheck, Robert Weverka, nice paycheck.

My parents took me to see this movie on a Sunday afternoon at the Coral Theater in Oak Lawn. This was a big deal, my parents rarely took me to the theater. In retrospect, that was the last movie we went to.

Coral Theater.jpg

For some reason, we got there pretty early. Not sure why, something to do with my father not wanting to wear his watch on weekends. So, we walked in the theater, and saw the last ten minutes, where Redford and Newman shoot each other dead, while a bewildered Robert Shaw is whisked away conned out of a ton of money. Redford and Newman get up, smile at each other, do that nose swipe, and avenge Hooker’s death. By the way, spoiler alert. As if it matters, if you haven’t seen it by now, you will never, never never.

Sad story, untrue. After surviving a vicious shark attack, I went on to die after being struck by a car in a police chase.

  • I played “The Entertainer” in 7th grade concert band. I’m sure it was absolutely horrible, but I loved playing the descending counter-melody on the trombone too loud, as the clarinets played the uplifting melody.
  • “The Entertainer” is still played on ice cream trucks, and it still sounds eerie.
  • In 1974, John Brimhall published lyrics to “The Entertainer”.
  • I have 7 different versions of “The Entertainer”.
  • Scott Joplin died penniless from tertiary syphilis.
  • I owned “The Sting Original Soundtrack” on cassette when it came out.

“The Entertainer” divided me from my peers. As they delved into the world of heavy metal and comedy albums, I searched out ragtime music. Since there was very little to be found, I settled for Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, and then Chicago, and then serious adult contemporary.


“The Entertainer” begins with a plaintive question from a solo piano, a motivational mantra of sorts, and it is repeated, this time as a statement, then again, louder, as it collapses and lands with a resounding plop expressing, well here we go.

The verse begins with a clarinet, followed by an answer from the flutes and snare drum. As the verse skips along, the tuba, trombone, trumpet, and bass drum join the parade, while the piano acts as the glue throughout.

The verse is repeated with more assurance. It leads to the bridge, where the brass section introduces a new affirmation. The bridge heightens and crescendos, then returns to a melancholy strain of the clarinet voicing the verse, then slowly returning to the energy displayed before the bridge. Followed by lights out.

Then this would be followed by “Rock The Boat” by The Hues Corporation.

#JamesBrownLiveInZaire1974, #PapaDon’tTakeNoMess1974

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